After taking several months off following a bout with COVID-19, Rachel Campos went back to work as a grocery store cashier in July with more knowledge about how to minimize the risk of contracting the disease on the job, and hopes of feeling safer.
This week, a co-worker Campos had been in close contact with at her Ralphs location in Southern California tested positive for the virus, and she has heard of several other infections among the staff, upending any sense of control or safety as the omicron variant of the coronavirus sweeps through the U.S. with staggering speed.
“I felt that it would be different — more measures to make sure we were OK. And there’s not,” said Campos, who finds herself anxious and paranoid at work once again.
Workers are struggling through another winter holiday season with a COVID surge, which has not translating into more or better protections at work, several employees said in interviews. And although the pandemic has made more people aware of pressures retail workers face, not all customers are kind.
“I just got called a ‘Nazi pedophile’ for telling someone to put on a mask,” said Kathleen Scott, who works at an Albertsons grocery store in Los Feliz, California.
Scott said her employer has not issued new guidance amid the rise in omicron infections. Working through the pandemic has worn her and many of her co-workers down, she said, and the temporary $5-an-hour hazard pay boost mandated by the city has expired. Scott feels they receive little support from their employer. She likened the experience to running a marathon.
“When you get to the last three miles, you push yourself harder because you think it will be over soon,” Scott said. “We keep feeling like we got to that last mile, and then there’s another mile, and at some point you just collapse.”
Kroger spokeswoman Vanessa E. Rosales said that the company, which owns Fred Meyer and QFC in the Seattle area, has implemented workplace safety policies since the onset of the pandemic and is making the vaccination of workers a primary focus. Employees who get fully vaccinated can receive $100, she said.
“We have been navigating the COVID-19 pandemic for almost two years and, in line with our values, the safety of our associates and customers has remained our top priority,” Rosales said in an emailed statement.
Grocers are facing a double hit, said Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of the retail consultant Strategic Resource Group. They are short staffed, in some cases because other retailers are luring away workers with signing bonuses and other perks.
Unionized employers tend to have higher levels of worker retention because of their better benefits, Flickinger said.
“Workers at these unionized grocers tend to be productive and loyal, whereas there’s far more turnover in restaurants, particularly in fast food,” Flickinger said.
Last spring, Dana Spencer quit her job at Whole Foods, where she had worked for seven years. “It was getting to be an untenable work environment,” she said in an e-mail.
Now, when Spencer shops at the store, she hears that it’s short on workers. Sometimes customers wait 15 to 30 minutes in line to buy a few items, Spencer said.
Spencer wasn’t the only one who decided to leave the Los Angeles-area store. Nearly everyone in the department she worked in has quit Whole Foods since she left. A few went on to work at Trader Joe’s, she said.
“No one I worked with is happy, and everyone I speak to is looking for other employment,” Spencer said. “This is hard, underpaid and under-appreciated work.”